Monday, July 31, 2006

Singapore, Unused to Protests, Girds for World Bank Meetings

July 28 (Bloomberg) — Singapore police last week clashed with about 30 Molotov cocktail-wielding demonstrators, dispersing the crowd with a water cannon and a charge by baton-wielding officers clad in body armor.

U.K.-based “security experts'’ and local police officers played the role of rioters in the battle, a dress rehearsal for International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings here in September which are expected to attract protests from anti- globalization and other groups.

The meetings, to be attended by European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet and more than 16,000 other officials, will be a key test for Singapore police, who are scheduled to announce their public order policy today. After race riots in the 1960s, the government imposed curbs on public assembly, and large-scale protests are almost unknown in the city-state.

“The Singapore government has activated very considerable resources to deal with this event,'’ said Steven Vickers, chief executive of Hong Kong-based International Risk Ltd. Groups ranging from South Korean farmers to Taiwan rice growers are expected to protest at the meetings, Vickers said.

At the World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong in December, police used tear gas and batons in clashes with demonstrators and arrested more than 1,000 people. At the 2000 IMF meetings in Prague, 600 people were hurt when protesters pulled cobblestones from the streets and flung them at police.

“Our level of force will be proportionate to the level of violence,'’ Soh Wai Wah, chief-of-staff at the Singapore Police Force, said after the mock battle on July 19.


For Singapore, the Sept. 12-20 meetings are an opportunity to showcase itself as a financial center and base for doing business in Asia.

The city is ranked second, after Hong Kong, in terms of economic freedom by the Heritage Foundation, and was named the best place in the world for Asians to live in a survey released April by human resource consultancy ECA International.

“People here believe Singapore is safe,'’ said Bruce Gale, an independent consultant to businesses in the region on political risk, in an interview in the city on June 23. “Foreign businesses, large numbers of them, have their regional headquarters in Singapore. This is what they intend to protect and I think they’re doing a pretty good job of it.'’

Fine Balance

Still, Singapore is known as a “fine city'’ where instant penalties are meted out for misdemeanors ranging from spitting to littering. Amnesty International says the government curbs freedom of expression. In a 2005 report on human rights in the city, the U.S. Department of State cited “restriction of freedom of assembly and freedom of association'’ as a problem.

“Singapore has our own sets of laws, and we appeal to everyone to respect them,'’ Soh said. “If these laws are broken, we will have to enforce them firmly, but also fairly and reasonably.'’

Under Singapore law, any public protest of more than four people without a police permit is deemed illegal and permission must be sought before public assemblies and speeches are held. The government says the rules help maintain harmony in the city, where 36 people were killed in 1964 riots between the Chinese and Malay communities.

Peaceful Protests

The IMF and World Bank meetings are being held at Suntec Singapore International Convention & Exhibition Centre, in the center of the city. Civic groups are hoping that local authorities will allow peaceful protests to be staged near the meeting venue.

“Our position is that any group should be able to participate without being excluded from decisions based on the whims and fancies of the IMF or the World Bank,'’ said Ruki Fernando, a spokesman for the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, a Bangkok-based human rights advocacy group.

“Decisions and policies drafted at this particular meeting are going to affect millions of people in over 200 countries, and those people have the right to be heard,'’ he said.

Singapore police have been studying the way other countries handle protests, Soh said, adding that the city deployed riot police during general elections in 2001.

“Our officers do have some experience, and definitely adequate training, to deal with various contingencies we can foresee in the coming event,'’ Soh said. Police and immigration authorities will also prevent groups or individuals who could pose a security threat from entering Singapore, he said.

The July 19 rehearsal included anti-riot vehicles and a helicopter, with the “rioters'’ hurling bottles and a real Molotov cocktail.

The meeting will be the largest international gathering ever held in Singapore. Some S$110 million ($69 million) of business for local companies and S$50 million of tourism may be generated during the event, the government said.

“We are trying all means to hope to have a peaceful event, but if disorder should indeed break out, we will be ready,'’ said police spokesman Tan Puay Kern.

Read also In Singapore, World Bank seeks street protests

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